Question: What Is an MSN Degree?

Answer: An MSN is a Master of Science in Nursing degree, which is the formal designation for a master’s-level nursing program. MSN programs provide advanced clinical practice and leadership training to qualified Registered Nurses (RNs). While there is a general master’s in nursing curriculum, MSN programs are designed to furnish RNs with tailored instruction in a specialization. These specializations include: Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL); nursing administration; nursing education; and the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations of Clinical Nurse Specialist, Nurse-Anesthetist, Nurse-Midwife, and Nurse Practitioner (NP).

MSN Degree Programs

MSN degree programs offer the next level of training to practicing nurses who have attained state licensure as RNs through the completion of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) program, or a hospital-based nursing diploma program. There are also direct-entry MSN programs designed for students who hold non-nursing bachelor’s degrees and who are not RNs. Students in direct-entry programs receive training to become an RN prior to beginning the MSN curriculum.

MSN programs furnish students with advanced knowledge and proficiencies in clinical and managerial areas of nursing in preparation for careers in nursing administration, nursing education, and various advanced practice specializations. While an MSN degree is not a formal requirement for nurse administrators and nurse educators, master’s-level training is often necessary to move forward in those fields. In areas of clinical specialization, an MSN degree or a master’s-level graduate certificate is generally a requirement for the licensing and credentials necessary to practice. This is true for Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs) and for Advance Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), a category that include Nurse Practitioners (NPs), Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs), Certified Nurse-Midwifes (CNMs), and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CNRAs).

MSN Program Curriculum

The MSN curriculum can be broken down into three main components: general advanced topics in nursing practice; training in a nursing specialization; and practice-based clinical hours. There are several recognized professional organizations that set curricular guidelines for and provide accreditation to MSN programs. These include the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME), the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME), the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA), and the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA).

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), which is the parent organization of the CCNE accreditation body, maintains Curriculum Guidelines for various APRN programs and other MSN program specializations. It also provides a general outline of core MSN proficiencies in The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing (2011). That document includes a framework detailing nine general areas of instruction for MSN programs:

  • Background for Practice from Sciences and Humanities
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Quality Improvement and Safety
  • Translating and Integrating Scholarship into Practice
  • Informatics and Healthcare Technologies
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving Health
  • Master’s Level Nursing Practice

MSN programs usually include at least 500 hours of supervised clinical training in the form of internships and practicums, although some specializations require a substantially larger number of clinical training hours. Clinical hours are typically completed in a student’s area of specialization, which also determines the focus of some of the coursework in an MSN program.

MSN Specializations

A key feature of the MSN degree is its area of concentration. MSN programs are designed to provide intensive training in a nursing specialization and to prepare RNs for leadership roles in nursing administration, nursing education, patient safety, and healthcare technologies, or for advanced certification and licensure in APRN specializations. Some of the more common non-APRN MSN program specializations include:

  • Clinical Nurse Leader
  • Health System Management
  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Executive Leadership
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Patient Safety and Healthcare Quality

APRN specializations in MSN programs include:

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse-Midwife
  • Nurse Practitioner

Nurse Practitioner programs have an additional level of specialization, which include:

  • Adult/Gerontology Acute Care NP
  • Adult/Gerontology Primary Care NP
  • Family NP
  • Neonatal NP
  • Pediatric Acute Care NP
  • Pediatric Primary Care NP
  • Psychiatric Mental Health NP
  • Women’s Health NP

MSN Admissions and Pathways

There are a variety of different types of MSN programs that are designed to accommodate students with a range of needs and priorities, including online MSN programs, traditional campus-based MSN programs, and hybrid programs. Most MSN programs require applicants to hold a valid RN license. However, there are direct-entry MSN programs that accommodate applicants who have completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree program but are not licensed RNs. Other admissions requirements vary by program, based in part on the following pathways to earning an MSN degree:

  • BSN-to-MSN: The most common type of MSN programs admit RNs who have completed an accredited BSN program.
  • RN-to-MSN: Some MSN programs are set up to provide RNs who received training in ADN and hospital-based nursing diploma programs with a curriculum that allows students to finish undergraduate nursing requirements while working toward an MSN degree.
  • BA/BS-to-MSN: These programs are designed to accommodate RNs who hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, and they provide students with undergraduate-level nursing courses – sometimes referred to as bridge courses – that must be completed before starting the MSN curriculum.
  • Post-Master’s Certificate: These programs are designed for RNs who have a master’s in nursing degree and would like additional training in another MSN specialization.

Depending on the pathway and the area of specialization, MSN programs may be completed in as few as two or three years of full-time enrollment. Many programs also allow students to opt for part-time enrollment, which extends the time it takes to complete the MSN degree requirements.


More Nursing FAQs:

FAQ: Are There Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs that Waive or Do Not Require the GRE?
FAQ: Are There Online MSN Programs That Do Not Require the GRE for Admission?
FAQ: Are There Online Nurse Practitioner (NP) Programs That Do Not Require the GRE or That Offer GRE Waivers?
FAQ: How Do You Become A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)?
FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Complete a Post-Master’s Nurse Practitioner (NP) Certificate Program Online?
FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Complete an MSN-to-DNP Program?
FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Complete an RN-to-BSN Program?
FAQ: What Are RN-to-BSN-to-MSN (Dual BSN/MSN) Programs?
FAQ: What Are the Differences Between a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Program?
FAQ: What Are the Differences Between a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) and a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?
FAQ: What Are the Differences Between a Clinical Nurse Leader and Nurse Administrator?
FAQ: What Are the Differences Between a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)?
FAQ: What Can You Do With a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree?
FAQ: What Can You Do With an MSN in Nursing Administration?
FAQ: What Can You Do With an MSN in Nursing Education?
FAQ: What Is a CNL Degree?
FAQ: What Is a DNP Degree?
FAQ: What Is a Patient Safety and Healthcare Quality MSN Degree?
FAQ: What is a Post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Program?
FAQ: What Is an Advanced Practice Nurse?
FAQ: What Is an MSN in Health Systems Management?
FAQ: What Is the CNE Certification for Nurse Educators?
FAQ: What Is the difference between NE-BC and NEA-BC?